After years on the sidelines, childcare has finally arrived in the policy limelight. The Queen’s Speech confirmed that the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to double the offer of free hours of childcare for 3 and 4 years-olds – from 15 to 30 hours per week – will be put in a childcare bill. On the face of it, this is great news for families – so what’s the problem?
Well, in fact, there are a number of issues. Doubling the amount of free hours sounds simple, until you begin to think about who bears the cost of increased free provision. Many have pointed out previously that free hours of childcare are already under-funded, and yesterday the Pre-School Learning Alliance quoted independent research showing that this amounted to a shortfall of 20% on existing free hours of childcare. The solution for providers is therefore to raise the cost of paid-for hours, which means that parents may pay more for additional hours.
Moreover, the extra free hours are for 3 and 4 year olds, so that new parents are faced with some hard choices at the point at which post-birth leave runs out. If you are returning to work before your child is 3, you then have to come up with a set of arrangements to cover the period before the 30 hours of free provision kicks in. From 2013, 15 free hours of childcare has made available for 2 year-olds whose parents are in lower income groups, but if you are earn any more and/or need care before your child turns two, you have to pay. Stitching together affordable solutions – and possibly multiple local childcare services – is stressful and costly for everyone. If you are a lone parent this applies all the more. In the UK, parents bear amongst the highest childcare costs in Europe. So there is a case – as NCT have suggested – for devoting greater attention (and funds) to affordable provision for under-3s. Given that longer periods out of the workplace tend to be associated with greater loss of earnings long-term, this may make sense within the system as it is.
In the UK our childcare and early years provision is complex, with an array of State, voluntary sector and private providers to navigate. Much of the early years provision is good or outstanding, but it tends to be in better-off areas, and to be in maintained nurseries. So gaps in provision tend to occur where parents might need it most – in areas of deprivation and/or where quality voluntary- or private-sector provision may be scarce. These differences are not immediately solved by increasing the number of free hours available. Further, the additional hours are proposed in the absence of any overt consideration of quality of care; to what extent can we be sure that quality can be preserved as the free provision is increased?
Finally, there is an issue around the terms of the offer: to be eligible for the free 30 hours, all parents in the household have to be employed. In the Nordic countries, to which British policymakers often turn for inspiration, the system has historically rested on the assumption that all families use State-subsidised childcare. More equal employment rates for mothers and fathers follow. In the UK, the emphasis in terms of subsidised childcare provision is often on the employment status of parents. If we thought even more about the benefits of quality early years provision for all children, this could both open up more children’s opportunities, and make more affordable and sustainable childcare choices possible for parents, especially as they move into employment after taking leave.